Wimbledon 2018: Kevin Anderson beats John Isner in thrilling record-breaker marathon
Kevin Anderson beats John Isner in a five-set thriller to reach the Wimbledon final
When it comes to the final four at this year’s Wimbledon Championships, age is clearly just a number.
Every man in the last quartet was over 30, from a total of 43 over-30s who featured in the draw. It is a record: the first time in the Open era that a Major semi-final line-up was entirely aged over 30.
The trend towards the mature and the experienced continued through the first week, with 11 making it to the last 32. By week two, almost half the survivors were over 30: seven of the last 16. In the quarter-finals, it was over half, five out of eight.
Both pairs were about to make history. In the second match, two of the greatest tennis masters of their age were about to extend their own record as the most-played rivalry. Novak Djokovic, a three time Wimbledon champion, and Rafael Nadal, twice winner here, both of them former No1s, would meet for an astonishing 52nd time.
But for the two older men of the four, John Isner at 33 and Kevin Anderson at 32, there was just as much on the line, even though their career profiles would never match those of their opposite numbers.
For a start, here was evidence that there was a different way to succeed in tennis. Both men had come through the North American college system, had played one another as students, and did not join the pro tour until after graduation. So both had taken time to work their way onto the tour, really not making their mark until their mid-20s.
Anderson’s first Major was in 2008, and he did not win a match until the US Open in 2010, age 24. He won his first title in 2011, broke inside the top 30 in 2012, and inside the top 20 the following year. He had just edged to No10 when injury problems knocked him back—but he returned even stronger and fitter after turning 30, and the last 12 months had brought new rewards, new ranking highs, and ever-growing self-belief.
He reached his first Major final in New York last September, made his first Masters semi-final in Madrid this May, having already reached the quarters in Indian Wells and Miami. And on his way to his first semi-final at Wimbledon, he had beaten Roger Federer for the first time in five meetings. Already he was edging to a career-high No6. If he beat Isner, he would break the top five.
Isner’s profile had been much the same. The American also played his first Major at 22 and won his first title at 25, edged into the top 30 in 2010 and into the top 10 just as he turned 27.
Then he too battled against niggling injury problems, slipped in the ranks, but was now assured of a new career-high No8 after reaching his first Major semi-final in his first Wimbledon semi run, and that after winning his first Masters title in Miami.
What else did they have in common? For both it was their 10th appearance at the tournament. Then there was their height and their consequent serving prowess: Anderson 6ft 8ins, Isner 6ft 10ins. Not surprisingly, they also had impressive serving statistics for the tournament: 123 and 161 aces respectively, and Isner was yet to be broken in the tournament.
In this their 12th match, and their first in more than three years, one of them would also become the tallest finalist ever to compete in the Wimbledon final. Who would it be?
It became a quite astonishing contest. Yes, huge serves, topping 140mph from both, and with second-serve aces scattered among an ever-growing tally. But this would not be simply about serving. There were some high-quality baseline rallies, where Anderson’s superior movement and anticipation stood out—and he slotted some memorable passes down both wings. There were also plenty of net points from Isner, who has adapted his game in recent years to take advantage of his big serving with strong one-two plays.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, tie-breaks would feature large, though the first set got off to a tight start, with Anderson having to save three break points in the third game. Indeed those first three games alone took 20 minutes.
Isner was challenged when serving to save that first set, facing only his seventh break point of the Championships so far. But a 129mph second serve saved the day, followed by a 140 ace, and he had held his 100th consecutive service game.
Sure enough, it would go to a tie-break, and Anderson picked off a couple of stunning returns of serve to level things at 4-4, and then won another baseline exchange for the set, 7-6(6).
By the middle of the second set, they had identical points, and huge numbers of winners and scarce unforced errors. Anderson worked a break point in the ninth game, but Isner upped his attack at the net to hold. Come the tie-break, he surged to a 5-0 lead, Anderson pegged him back to 5-6, but another Isner ace did the job, 7-6(5).
The third set looked to cause an upset when Anderson broke at last, 5-3: He had only to serve it out. However, Isner broke straight back, and it would go to a still longer, tenser tie-break. Anderson doubled faulted on set point, and then saw Isner reel off three points for the set, 7-6(9).
And the fourth was more of the same, each testing to the limit. After three hours, they had stacked 46 aces, Isner had won 40 points at the net, Anderson had made 52 winners for only nine errors. It was iron-man stuff. And the South African got another break in the fourth—only for Isner to slot a backhand pass to level again, 3-3. This time, though, Anderson broke again, and held, 6-4—a modest 43-minute set.
It was, though, just the beginning of a match that would last another three hours and 30 games, to become the second-longest match in Wimbledon history, but a match of such quality that it became a battle of physical wills. Who would blink, who would buckle, who would be broken?
Neither man would give way. The occasional and very rare break point came and went: In the 15th game, in the 20th game, a couple when they stood at 17-17. As usual Isner produced two huge serves, and the chance was gone.
Mentally, Anderson stood up to the pressure of serving second, knowing that one slip, and he would be out. After six hours, they stood at 20-20. And finally, with Isner serving at 24-24, the serve would not do his bidding any more. He went 0-40 down, courtesy of the most stunning effort from Anderson, who fell mid-point and got up again to hit a forehand with his left hand.
He explained afterwards that his father has got him to play left-handed when he had an injury in the right wrist. It made all the difference. He broke at last, and served it out after 6hrs and 36mins, 26-24.
It will, of course, go down in the record books as the longest semi-final ever played here, though it did not beat the other record that still stands—the one that Isner won against Nicolas Mahut in 2010, 70-68 in the fifth.
Sadly, it will probably not be remembered for just what a standard these two men brought to court for the entire duration. For Anderson, 118 winners to just 24 unforced errors; For Isner, 229 winners—including 53 aces—for 59 errors. The American won 76 points at the net, the South African 32. And by the end, they had the packed Centre Court eating from their hands.
Also what will get lost in the drama is that this was Anderson’s 300th tour-level win—and he will surely remember it for a very long time.
For the moment, however, he could barely think, but was the first to empathise with his friend and rival, Isner:
“I don’t know what to say right now. Just playing like that in those conditions was tough on both of us. You feel like it is a draw, but someone has to win. John is a great guy and I feel for him. If I was on the opposite side, I don’t know how you take it.
“I have known John for such a long time, he is a great guy. I have pushed myself harder because of the success he has had. I have to say congratulations to John on a great tournament and hopefully he can come back stronger.”
It was, of course, for the two who followed, a very long time to wait. Nadal and Djokovic did not take to court until 8pm, with the roof closed so that it could continue into the darkness of a Wimbledon night. Anderson would not know his final opponent for many an hour yet.